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In the years afterward, South Korea introduced major changes to prepare itself for the next virus. It passed a law that empowered labs to use unapproved diagnostic tests in case of emergencies. It dramatically expanded the power of health officials, allowing them to close hospitals when needed and to access surveillance footage and other information for confirmed and suspected carriers. In future outbreaks, local governments would be required to alert residents to the number and location of nearby infections; the isolation of potentially infectious individuals would be mandatory, with fines for those who failed to comply. (In the U.S., during this pandemic, measures like these have been optional.) The directorship of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency was elevated to a top position within the government. A new public-health emergency-response team was established, and a special department was created to focus on risk communication. The government hired more epidemiologists, bolstered border-screening measures, and required hospitals to increase the number of negative-pressure isolation rooms. All this contributed to the fact that, beginning last year, South Korea mounted among the most effective pandemic responses in the world, recording around seventeen hundred COVID-19 deaths across a population of fifty-two million people.
In the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed a specific set of systemic weaknesses that need to be addressed for next time. The country’s stockpile of emergency equipment proved inadequate, as did its test-and-trace infrastructure. Federal public-health agencies and programs and local health departments were underfunded and unprepared. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota and a member of President Biden’s COVID-19 transition advisory board, told me that there was a sense in which these failures were unsurprising: before the coronavirus, Americans were collectively incapable of imagining just how deadly and disruptive a wildly contagious pathogen could be. “We’ve long had this complacency, because we thought of infectious diseases as something that affected low-income countries,” he said. “We’ve had this attitude of, ‘As long as it’s over there, it’s not our problem.’ Well, now we’ve had a taste of what it means to live with a deadly virus. What are we going to do about it?”